Indian origin Dr. Anil Menon, SpaceX’s first flight surgeon, will be among the new recruits who will enroll in NASA’s 2021 astronaut candidate class in January 2022, which will be trained for the agency’s future missions.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Ukrainian and Indian immigrants, Dr. Menon holds a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He has PhDs in emergency medicine and ten in aerospace medicine. Dr. Menon started as a flight surgeon at NASA in 2014 before moving to SpaceX in 2018 to serve as senior flight surgeon.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, Dr. Menon, who is often referred to as a doctor of aerospace medicine, on the future of aerospace medicine, his work at SpaceX and his love for Indian food.
They were selected from over 12,000 applicants. Was this news surprising for you?
Dr. Anil Menon: It was a big surprise, surprises are good. You can never have enough confidence with 12,000 people applying for 10 positions. There are definitely a lot of qualified people. So I was very excited, overjoyed, and happy about the opportunity. I was in California and got a call and the person started talking about the Dragon capsule because I was working at SpaceX at the time. I thought it was a business call. And halfway through it turned out to be a joke. The head of the astronauts office said “I’m kidding, do you want to be an astronaut?” And I said, “Sign me up”.
And at that moment my wife came into the room and just started crying. Because she could just see the joy on my face. So it was a great moment for both of us.
Why did you study both medicine and engineering?
I think working in space and at NASA is really good, combining engineering with some sciences. So for the Dragon vehicle there are several technical questions, but also medical approaches. For example, in the health stabilization system, you need to know the percentage of oxygen and other such parameters. It is therefore important to master the language of engineers and doctors.
You were the crew flight doctor for the International Space Station? What was that role like?
A crew flight surgeon is a doctor who supervises astronauts in space travel. When I’m there, I’ll talk to you the same way I talk to you on a video call now. You’re in space and I’m on the ground. If they have a stomach ache or develop a rash, they don’t have a doctor around. And I help out.
So you are a space doctor?
It’s really interesting to take care of people in space. If we have to build a sustainable lunar presence and send people to Mars, we need more such doctors.
Aerospace medicine is the fastest growing field of medicine. It’s very exciting and the possibilities are limitless in this field, just like in radiology or dermatology or any other field.
When I started at NASA, there were only 20 doctors there. Then a job at SpaceX opened up and I was lucky enough to get it. But over the past three years I’ve worked with hundreds of medical students, paramedics, nurses, and I will continue to do so in the future.
You were SpaceX’s first flight surgeon. Tell us about this experience.
When I went to SpaceX, we were working on the Dragon capsule to bring NASA astronauts into space. And as a doctor, I would look after you at the start. And then I would be the first person to put it in and the first person to pull it out of the capsule.
And now, as a NASA astronaut candidate, I have the opportunity to actually switch roles and fly with them.
About India and Indian food
When people are in space, the food tastes different because the nose becomes blocked because the liquid begins to swim up there. I have heard from many astronauts that Indian food is their favorite because it is spicier. It’s a medical fact.
As someone from India, I am excited to represent the bigger world. My Achan (father) is from the Malabar region and I took my wife to Kerala three years ago, we went to Cochin, Alleppey and crossed to Tamil Nadu. I wanted to show my wife what an amazing place Kerala is and she loved it.
Kerala has a special place in my heart. The people are so welcoming, but they are a bit amazed when they hear my accent. You are so warm and welcoming. The time in India helped me a lot to prepare for this job because these are the same skills that I will have to apply as an astronaut in the future. India is such a diverse, multicultural place, every single state has a different language, a different culture and there is so much history.
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